By Bill Shepard
Near and around the turn of the last century the textile industry in America was on the move southward. The New England states, where the industry had flourished since moving to America from England, would now experience the loss.
The rich farmlands of the south, and the long growing seasons, favored growing the cotton that was needed for the industry. Perhaps a bountiful supply of cheap labor added another strong incentive for the move.
The move was on, and there was no stopping it. Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, all became targets for the industry to locate, and mill-towns began to spring up at a rapid rate. Poor farmers, known as sharecroppers, began leaving the farms in droves and moving to the mill villages where they found steady employment, and a salary the year round. Cheap rent for houses, furnished by the owners of the big mill, credit at the large Company Owned Stores, were a strong incentive for families to pull up stakes and move to the mill-towns that were springing up all over the south.
In 1922, my father, for all the reasons just stated, moved with his family to the mill-town of Darlington. Like so many of the time, he was seeking a better way to provide for his family. It was in Darlington that I spent my young years experiencing the new way of life, the only way of life that I would know for the next eighteen years. I would not exchange my memories of those years with any other. They are all embedded deeply in my memory bank, and I go to the bank almost daily and draw on my account. I wear my title proudly; I am a mill village boy!
IT has been my good fortune to live on or near mill towns a good portion of my long life. I have relived my years over and over again in the lives of mill town folk that I have met in those years. I have identified with the old, and counseled with the young, always putting myself in their stead. I have felt a close kinship with the mill folk.
Following World War II, and not many years afterward, the textile industry began to move overseas, and the South began to witness what those in the New England states had experienced before. Mill towns began to die! Today, in the upstate where so many of the industry were located, ghosts of that era can be seen all around. In an area a few miles from where I now live, reminders of that time can be seen dotting the landscape. Tall smokestacks, all that is left standing of the two old giants, can be seen standing as if sentinels guarding time, and a way of life that has come and gone. Within one mile of where I sit writing, all that remains of two huge cotton mills are two large smokestacks that can be seen from far distances. Surrounding them are rows of old houses, build nigh a hundred years ago, most in need of repair. Ah, but the stories they could tell of the things they have seen and heard. Here and there, one might see an old couple sitting in a rocker on the porch. They welcome a visitor who stops to listen to the stories they can share; the story of a time, a place, a people, and a way of life that came, then moved on.
I like mill towns; they have been a huge part of my life! Little mill towns were places where a nobody could be a somebody. They were places where deals were made with a handshake and a promise. Little mill villages were places where folk sat on their porch in the evenings, after supper, and waved at folk passing by, even inviting them to stop and sit for a while. Little mill towns were where the banker, the farmer, mill worker, and merchant all sat on the same pew at the same church, and yes, where all the children attended the same school!
My memories of a lot of living are buried deeply in a little mill town. Guess where? Support your little town, keep it alive!
Note: Have you purchased your brick of “Remembrance” to be placed in the memorial to be built in Darlington? The memorial honoring those who worked at the old cotton mill in Darlington is in need and worthy of your support! For further information, please contact Peggy Sheffield, 108 Columbian Street, Darlington, S.C. 29532 or call 843-393-2776.
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. Signed copies of Mr. Shepard’s books “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised” are available for purchase at the News and Press office. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.